This year marks the 25th anniversary of a scientific milestone: the birth of Dolly the Sheep at Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute. Dolly was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell.
At the time, there were fears that the breakthrough would open the floodgates to a Brave New World scenario of cloned human beings. The nightmare was of a future in which certain individuals would be picked out on the basis of intelligence, looks or some other attribute — and then endlessly replicated.
But as far as we know that’s never happened. The first primates (a pair of crab-eating macaques) were cloned in 2017, but from embryonic, not adult, cells.
So, just another technological dead end? Not quite.
For instance, according to the Yonhap news agency, 80% of the sniffer dogs used to enforce quarantine regulations at South Korean airports are now clones. Training a dog for the task is expensive — and using new recruits with the exactly the same genetic make-up as animals that have previously proven their ability to learn cuts down on the failure rate.
Why should we care? These are specialised applications — and aren’t being used on people. Indeed, why let the Chinese and Koreans make all the running on this technology? Given British strengths in biotech, isn’t it time we made a bigger effort to bring cloning home and establish a major industry in the UK?
The problem is that technologies that start off with expensive, high-end applications tend to become cheaper over time — thus opening up mass market applications (e.g. mobile phones). For instance, routine use of cloning to create standardised animals could benefit factory farming systems in which sentient creatures are treated as mere units of production. However, the resulting genetic uniformity would increase susceptibility to infectious disease — leading to more reliance on medication including antibiotics.
Furthermore, cost-cutting isn’t the only outcome of commercialising a technology. Growing industries tend to be innovative industries — attracting talent and investment into research and development. Most likely, this will accelerate the pace which the technical obstacles to human cloning are removed.
Dolly is not around for her anniversary — she was put down in 2003. However, what she represents is not a dead end. 25 years on from her birth, the cloning industry is reaching critical mass.